When I first experienced intense church conflict, it took me by surprise. I had never known anything like it in my life. As I related in Part 1 of this series, Minimizing Conflict, the clash occurred in the tenth year of my first pastorate. A small but influential group of long-time parishioners, mostly from one family, became increasingly alarmed as newer, younger, more Christ-centered members gradually moved into positions of leadership. This group launched a sort of “fishing expedition” to gather any and all complaints about me. They attempted to dredge up any possible criticism or grievance, from any source, past or present, and to weave the strands into whole cloth. My opposition had decided it was time for me to go. Their goal was to call for a congregational meeting to vote on whether I should stay or be removed as pastor. And they had history on their side, having successfully forced the resignation of the two previous pastors. This time, though, they could collect only 20 of the 25 petition signatures needed to call such a meeting, so they abandoned that strategy in favor of private meetings in homes to recruit more support. This was without doubt the lowest the point in my ministry.
No one likes conflict, and we all seek to avoid it. But if and when you find yourself facing a fight or under attack, here are some lessons that my experience taught me about managing conflict, with a good outcome.
Lesson 1: Don’t Take It Personally
It is important to recognize that YOU are not the problem; it is the change you are leading that is the problem. Keep your focus on the change, not on yourself. Do this by leading with conviction, clarity, and compassion—conviction about your vision, clarity about communicating that vision, and compassion for all who are being affected by the change. Remember, effective leadership will produce conflict. It seems that the opposite should be true, that good leadership will eliminate or circumvent conflict. But in fact, conflict may well be a sign that you are leading effectively. If you are getting no resistance, then you are probably managing more than leading. Certainly, there are times in the life of a church when managing the institution is all that is required to keep the church on a steady track forward for a while. However, a church in need of renewal will require leadership that pushes against the status quo. Leadership is about discerning where Christ, the Head of the Church, wants to take His church toward wholeness and mission, and about helping the church make the difficult choices needed to get there. You will never bring everyone on board, but effective leadership must win over most and be prepared to lose some. In my case, at first I believed the lie of the Enemy that I was the problem. Eventually, I realized that it was God who had led us to this point of conflict so that His will might be accomplished in our church.
Lesson 2: Stay Close to People
Like Lesson 1, this is easier said than done. When people are assaulting you, the natural responses are to fight back or, more likely, to ignore it in hopes it will fade away. By doing neither but instead staying in close contact with people in the midst of the battle, you can begin to decipher the conflict, navigate your way through it, possibly tamp down the tension, and hopefully bring about healing. Stay connected with all of the constituencies in your ministry. Draw close to those who support you and get their perspective. Seek the prayers and wisdom of those outside the situation whose counsel you trust, such as mentors, coaches, peers, denominational leaders, even your parents. This group will also give you the spiritual support you need. Then, along with a few of your leaders, meet your opponents and listen patiently and lovingly to their concerns. Then ask for their prayers. In this way, you may be able to allay some of their fears, or you may realize your plans are causing needless hurt and should be modified.
Understand that it’s not change itself that is the problem, it’s the loss associated with change. The more that people sense the loss of something familiar, safe, and meaningful, the more they will resist. Above all, by staying emotionally connected to your opponents, you may build further trust with them. Even if they continue to oppose, you will affirm their worth, show Godly leadership, and hopefully de-escalate the situation. And even if your opposition chooses to leave in anger, if you have treated them with respect, you will ”heap coals” of love on their heads.
I am currently coaching a young pastor in his first year of ministry. He got off to a poor start by being somewhat authoritarian before he had earned the trust of his people to lead. The result has been strong pushback. I have counseled him to do a “reset” with his people, to essentially start the relationship all over. He is currently meeting with his leaders to help him understand where he went wrong. Then he plans to meet individually over the next few months with all 75 of his members. He knows now that he and the church never got to know one another. I have assured him he is showing love and Godly leadership in doing this.
Lesson 3: Discern When the Conflict Is Dark and Ungodly
Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that, ultimately, our conflict is not “against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil.” Such spiritual forces are obviously in play when the conflict centers on the issue of biblical authority, or the centrality of Christ, or perhaps a ministry of healing or deliverance. Since the Evil One is known as the “accuser,” do not be surprised if the opposition comes in the form of accusations.
The following are other signs that church conflict might be rooted in darkness:
- the criticism becomes personal and irrational;
- the pastor’s family is the target;
- there are anonymous and hateful letters;
- the anger is way out of proportion to the supposed offense;
- strong emotional behavior such as crying or screaming is exhibited.
In my case, a great spiritual weight was lifted from the church when this group left. Only then did I realize how much this influential family had controlled the church (and to a certain extent me) and had cast a dark spiritual pall over its life. From then on, our worship services and our ministries began to come alive with a sense of the presence of God. This was the beginning of a real, sustained renewal of our church. It was at a weeklong conference I had attended while the conflict was going on that The Reverend Terry Fullam, then the rector of St. Paul’s Church, Darien, Connecticut, spoke a word of godly counsel to me. The Lord is using you, he said, to “break an ungodly power chain this family has had over your church; do not shrink from the battle.” He was proved correct.
This is an occasion to deploy the weapons of spiritual warfare, namely the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18) and divine weapons for demolishing strongholds (II Corinthians10:4). Gather a group of godly people—prayer warriors—to pray with you against the darkness, trusting God to wage spiritual warfare as you show love and humility toward your opponents.
Lesson 4: Tell It to the Church
This is the counsel that our Lord gives in Matthew 18, when a dispute between two parties cannot be resolved. In the case of my conflict, I did not at first follow Jesus’ counsel to go to my critics one on one. Instead, I kept everything to myself, hoping the hostility would just go away. It didn’t. When I did finally decide to meet with the opposition leader, it was to try to win him back to my side, again trying to avoid conflict at all costs. Meanwhile he and his allies continued to solicit support against me. As long as I was fighting my battle alone, I was losing.
Finally, on the advice of my own father, a wise and godly man, I went to my leadership board and told them what was going on, unburdening my heart to them. Some were aware of the simmering conflict, but others were not. All saw the threat to our church’s unity as they recalled or learned about the harm this same group had done in the past. They immediately went to work and set up a process to hear the complaints of my critics. I immediately felt tremendous relief that it was now out of my hands. In trusting myself to my leaders, I had obeyed Scripture by “telling it to the church.” I was able to leave the matter entirely with my board (and in fact left town to attend the conference mentioned above). They conducted an open hearing, to which four people from the opposition showed up, all from the same family. Their complaints were heard, but it was evident they had no case but were desperate over losing the power they had wielded in the past.
In my absence, my board made its recommendation that these individuals cease their complaints, be reconciled to me, and honor their membership vows. Instead, over the next few weeks, they would attend worship, but when I went to the pulpit to preach, they would stand and walk out in protest. After a few weeks, five people (four from one family and their closest friend) withdrew their membership and left. The leadership and I made several sincere attempts at reconciliation, to no avail. The lesson I learned is that God has ordained authority (Romans 13) and that when we submit to that authority, we will have His blessing. When my leadership made their decision, the matter was ended, the opposition had no recourse, and a palpable sense of freedom and peace was present in the church.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” So we will never be completely free from trouble and conflict. But following a season of conflict in a church, the Lord often graciously gives to that church a season of peace, as he gave David following his years of conflict with Saul (II Samuel 7:1). Then, in my experience, when conflict occurs again, it is never as intense or bitter because all parties have learned godly ways to resolve it. So if you are going through conflict, stay faithful and trust that better days lie ahead.
(Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, 2018, Overseed Press.)